t/Space and Magnificent Desolation

After the Lunar Science Panel, the last discussion was a stand-alone talk by Brett Alexander of t/Space. Brett used to work in the Whitehouse (at the OMB?) during the original work on the Vision for Space Exploration back in 2003. He’s now with t/Space’s Washington DC office.

I don’t remember too much about his talk, but he did make a couple of good points. He emphasized the fact that one of the key goals of the VSE was to promote commercial development of space for the benefit of our country. He quoted someone as having described the VSE as helping to make space and the Moon “part of our nation’s economic zone.” He then hit on a meme that got repeated a lot during the conference–that NASA can’t succeed at the VSE by doing business-as-usual. He stated that NASA’s budget now is limited, but is stable. It is unlikely to drastically increase or decrease anytime in the forseeable future. With that in mind, he thinks the real question is what we want to do with the money that NASA will be getting anyway.

My take on the general approach that he outlined seemed to be letting NASA waste its money on a shuttle-derived launch vehicle, but try to get them to set aside some crumbs for commercial alternatives for ISS resupply. I was slightly dissappointed, but not too surprised by this take. T/Space is of course focusing their efforts on becoming the company picked to provide such ISS services, with their CXV project. They want NASA to use its Other Transactions Authority mechanism to do a firm, fixed-price contract for development of the CXV, where small payments would be made upon achievement of certain technical milestones. While this is definitely superior to the wasteful cost-plus contracting that seems to be par for the course with NASA, it still leaves something to be desired. I’d much rather see NASA focus more on being a customer instead of trying to pick winners and fund development, but I’m a bit of a purist still. I’m just worried that if the “non-traditional” approach is seen as a non-critical-path backup plan, that it’s likely to get the shafted when the inevitable cost overruns from The Stick and CEV start rolling in. But knowing the past experience of many of the principles of t/Space, and having a lot of respect for them personally, I can’t fault them too much.

Anyhow, after Brett’s talk, and a short break, we met up for a reception. I got to meet some of the people who I’ve known over the internet, and had the opportunity to find out more about them. I got to talk with Lee Valentine, who is currently the VP of the Space Studies Institute. He told me about some of the projects that the Institute had done over the years. If I’m remembering things correctly, that’s Gerald O’Neill’s old group. I also got to speak with some other friends.

After the reception, we were invited to go on a trip to an IMAX theatre to see a pre-release screening of some parts of the new Magnificent Desolation IMAX movie. I was really tired by this point (having only gotten about 5 hours of sleep the night before), and was worried that I’d fall asleep during the movie, but fortunately that didn’t happen.

We had either the director or producer of the movie give us a several minute introduction and discussion about the making of the film. This movie is apparently Tom Hanks’ brainchild, and it looks like it will turn out to be pretty darned good. The movie is about the Apollo moon landings, with an attempt to show some of the less well known events of the program. They did a decent job of trying to simulate the lunar surface with their studio, but it showed the limitations of such simulation. Any moon-hoaxer with at least a shred of integrity left would have to admit that even today, we still can’t simulate the real-thing perfectly.

For instance, they used a series of wires to help simulate the effects of 1/6th gravity. While they did a good job of it, you could definitely notice a difference between the way they moved and the way that the original moonshots showed the astronauts moving. Also didn’t look very much like the footage of people moving around inside Zero-Gravity’s parabolic flight vehicle while it was doing a 1/6th-G parabola. There was something subtly and noticably lacking. Next time I hear a moon-hoaxer going off about how the Apollo landings were faked in a studio with wires, I’m going to laugh at them. The other interesting bit was the issue with dust. Building a vacuum chamber as big as the stage they used would have been unbelievably difficult and expensive, if even possible. When they tried to put some dust on the stage, they found that when people walked around in it, it would kick up a dust cloud that would stay suspended in the air, in a way that was obviously fake. So, they ended up vacuuming up the dust, and simulating it with CGI for the movie. There’s no way in heck they could’ve done a believable job of that with 60’s era CGI technology.

But that’s enough time wasted on trying to debunk the debunkers. The movie looked really cool. I’m not a fan of IMAX movies, or NASA propaganda movies in general, but this one looks like its worth the money I’ll have to cough out to go see it when it comes out this September. The movie is done in several snippets from each of the different missions, and the music was pretty good. I’m interested in seeing the end of the scene they showed near the Hadley Rille. These guys sunk large amounts of time obsessing over detail to make sure that they did as true-to-life of a reenactment as was reasonably possible, and I expect the final product to be superb.

After that movie, we were shown the Space Station IMAX movie that’s been out for a while. It was very informative, and I learned quite a bit. It was amusing to see some of the pro-ISS propaganda in the light of several years of hindsight. Gives you a real perspective on the current thinking coming out of NASA regarding the VSE. But in spite of Tom Cruise’s overselling of what glorious things would be done on this wonderful multinational space station, the footage was truly amazing. The eye-candy more than made up for the hokieness of some of the lines, and it really reminded me of how much I want to eventually go. Low Earth Orbit is a beautiful place. We just need to get a transportation system that’s more affordable, and infrastructure that is designed, built, and operated with the private sector as its focus. Once costs get down to a more reasonable level, and once the infrastructure is in place to handle the traffic, I wouldn’t be surprised to see thousands of people a year wanting to visit orbit.

Anyhow, I really enjoyed the IMAX trip, and have to really give some praise for the SFF crew, led by Jeff Feige, who helped arrange this whole show. They really did an excellent job of providing a wonderful experience.

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Jonathan Goff

Jonathan Goff

President/CEO at Altius Space Machines
Jonathan Goff is a space technologist, inventor, and serial space entrepreneur who created the Selenian Boondocks blog. Jon was a co-founder of Masten Space Systems, and is the founder and CEO of Altius Space Machines, a space robotics startup in Broomfield, CO. His family includes his wife, Tiffany, and five boys: Jarom (deceased), Jonathan, James, Peter, and Andrew. Jon has a BS in Manufacturing Engineering (1999) and an MS in Mechanical Engineering (2007) from Brigham Young University, and served an LDS proselytizing mission in Olongapo, Philippines from 2000-2002.
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